Sister of Leah and niece of Rebekah, Rachel is a matriarch of the people of Israel. Genesis picks up her story when she meets her cousin Jacob at a well, the biblical singles spot par excellence (Gen 29:1-14). Rachel’s father Laban and Jacob’s mother Rebekah were siblings, which, in the world of Genesis, made for the best kind of match. Jacob agreed to work for Laban for seven years in return for being able to marry Rachel, but when the time came, Laban tricked the trickster, substituting Leah and insisting that, as the elder sister, she must marry first. After agreeing to work for Laban for seven more years, Jacob was finally allowed to marry his beloved Rachel as well (Gen 29:15-30).
Jacob favored Rachel, so God made Leah fertile, which in turn aggravated childless Rachel. Competition between the sisters escalated, with both enlisting their “maids” Bilhah (Rachel) and Zilpah (Leah) to bear children on their behalf, a common form of surrogacy in that context. Eventually Rachel gave birth to Joseph, who became Jacob’s favorite son (Gen 29:31-30:24). Rachel died just after giving birth to a second son, Benjamin (Gen 35:16-20).
Was Rachel a victim?
Rachel’s story may not seem very inspiring. It focuses largely on challenges related to marriage and childbearing. She lives in frequent competition with her sister and dies tragically.
However, there is another side to Rachel’s story. Her protracted infertility fits into a larger biblical pattern that signals the special importance of the child (Joseph) who finally arrives. In this sense, Rachel’s tragedy is also her triumph.
Likewise, the prominence of marriage and childbearing in Rachel’s story does not diminish her individual worth. Our natural tendency is to read Genesis through our own culture’s expectations about gender, marriage, and family, but Genesis plays by different rules. While individual-oriented cultures emphasize autonomy and independence, group-oriented cultures like Rachel’s prioritize the “we” rather than the “I.” The emphasis on marriage and childbearing in Rachel’s story thus reflects the importance of collective survival for both women and men in her society, and especially for those implicated in God’s promise to make a great nation from Abraham’s descendants.
Rachel’s story comes to us through authors whose priorities may not correspond to our own. While we may wonder about Rachel’s overall feelings toward Jacob and Leah, Genesis focuses elsewhere. Had the story come to us from a different culture, strata of society, or gender, it would be very different.
Why does Rachel’s attempt at surrogacy turn out so differently than Sarah’s?
Infertility shows up frequently in the stories of the matriarchs and other biblical women. It posed a threefold problem, depriving women both emotionally and economically, as well as threatening the continuity of a family that God had promised to make into a great nation. Both Sarah and Rachel responded to their infertility by enlisting their “maids” to bear children on their behalf. But Bilhah’s children Dan and Naphtali become the ancestors of tribes of Israel while Hagar’s son Ishmael becomes the ancestor of a different people (see Gen 16, Gen 21:18, Gen 25:12-18). Why would the same procedure, undertaken with the same rationale, produce such different outcomes?
This is just one of many such discrepancies. Jacob’s sons by different women become tribes of the same people while he and his twin brother Esau become ancestors of different peoples (Gen 36). Incest between Lot and his daughters lead to the creation of two new peoples (Gen 19:30-38). When it comes to determining the ancestors of Israel, Genesis does not seem to be operating by a consistent set of rules.
These discrepancies show that Israel comes into being through the promises of God, a process very different from the transmission of ethnicity in a modern context. They also signal that modern readers may be putting these stories in the wrong genre. The writers of Genesis often sacrificed logic because its narratives aren’t primarily personal histories. Genesis is the story of a people in which the past and the present are closely entwined. The matriarchs’ stories have a sociological function: to convey the nuances of the society from which their story is told, accounting for its different subgroups and the dynamics between them. For the Israelite authors of their stories, the matriarchs and their children are not just ancestors of the tribes that bear their name. They are also reflections of those tribes.
Amanda Mbuvi, "Rachel", n.p. [cited 27 Jan 2020]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/rachel
Assistant Professor of Religion, High Point University
Amanda Mbuvi is Assistant Professor of Religion at High Point University. She approaches biblical studies from an interdisciplinary perspective, engaging questions of identity and community that are prominent in both the biblical texts and contemporary conversations about how we live with those texts and with each other. Her first book, Belonging in Genesis: Biblical Israel and the Politics of Identity Formation,was recently published by Baylor University Press.